The art of the 1990s is synonymous with The Young British Artists, who were catapulted to fame by Damien Hirst and a group of his freshly graduated art student friends.
They orchestrated Freeze, an exhibition showcasing their own work, which impressed advertiser/art dealer Charles Saatchi, who subsequently snapped up numerous amounts of Hirst’s controversial work. This was the birth of the Young British Artists (YBA), which includes household names such as Tracy Emin, Chris Ofili, and Gary Hume, to name only a few.
Jenny Blyth played a key part in this whole movement. She worked as curator of The Saatchi Gallery from 1990-2002. She was instrumental in the infamous Sensation show, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1999. It courted unprecedented international media hype and coverage, even gaining comments from Hilary Clinton, who said there were parts of the exhibition she felt would be “deeply offensive”.
I ask Blyth if the show was put together to create as much media hype as possible. “No, Sensation, which was curated by Charles Saatchi, myself and The Royal Academy, and was selected on the basis that each work was considered in itself to be ‘sensational’. It is fair to say that we applied that phrase loosely. We certainly felt that the art works selected represented the best of what became known as Brit Art. When Sensation was shown, it did indeed seem to manifest many of those attributes. It was also thought-provoking, insightful, compelling and, in parts, stunning. It reflected many different facets of society.”
Contemporary art reflects society at the time of its production, and Blyth confirms this with her feelings on whether the Young British Artists’ work reflected or formed our culture in the 1990s. “Contemporary artists react to the world around them, articulating through their chosen medium their own personal response to contemporary issues and mores that inspire or provoke them, whether sociological, political or environmental. Many of the YBAs created art that was considered to be contentious at that time, but then it is in the nature of artists to drive the boundary of what is considered to be aesthetically acceptable, ahead of what society at large might find palatable. Certainly what is perceived to be contentious today is largely acceptable tomorrow.”
Some pieces in Sensation that were considered by the public as particularly offensive, included a painting by Chris Ofili of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung and a portrait of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey painted with the hand prints of children. I ask Blyth if there is a process by which to decide if a piece is too offensive to be shown. “I can honestly say that we never set out deliberately to offend. That is not to say that the works might not be perceived as shocking, as contemporary art will often jolt you into reassessing what you think you know or feel. From the curator’s perspective, one of the deciding factors is to look closely at the intention of the artist.”
She continues: “The tabloids portrayed Marcus Harvey’s Myra as a callous celebration of a child murderer. Harvey certainly explored the celebrity aspect of that infamous police headshot of Hindley – but by recreating that image on a large scale, using child hand prints as brushstrokes, Harvey actually reminded us how heinous her crimes were at a time when she came up for, and was indeed refused, parole.”
With Blyth’s position as curator at the Saatchi gallery came somewhat unconventional tasks. “Aside from the administration of the gallery, there were every day some very strange tasks: sourcing and hatching castors for Damien Hirst’s maggot hotel in 1000 Years; frying eggs for Sarah Lucas’ Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab or finding a white witch (three in fact) to cast a spell – to name but a few.”
Moreover, she has been involved in some other very controversial exhibitions, with the exhibition I am Camera being criticised for containing paedophilic imagery of children. “I was instructed by the Crown Prosecution that we were not to open the gallery on the Friday, but we opened on the day to an incoming tidal wave of naked demonstrators and a blinding wall of cameras flashing. It was very cold, so we served them tea on the gallery floor in appreciation of their support. We continued to run the exhibition until charges were dropped. It did feel quite hairy at the time, finding detectives from the Vice Squad waiting for me in my office, and both Tierney Gearon (exhibiting artist) and I returning to find reporters at home with our children.”
The Saatchi decade certainly has a very important legacy in contemporary art, “We were incredibly fortunate in that the explosion of art in Britain during the 90s fuelled the collection with over 3,000 artworks in an array of different media that were challenging, dynamic and, in many cases, unprecedented. Charles Saatchi had the vision to recognise it for what it was. In showcasing it, he made the unique contribution at that time of bringing contemporary art to a wider audience, so that it became part of everyday culture rather that the pursuit of an elite. I was lucky really, to have been in the right place at the right time.”
Is it luck, then, that is needed to make it in the art world? “There are so many artists out there waiting to be discovered – which is a very exciting thought – and some will have far greater skills in putting themselves forward. It does not necessarily follow that the most talented are the most gifted in terms of making their work available. Since Damien Hirst co-curated Modern Medicine in 1990 with Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman and a small group of artists, there has been an ongoing explosion of artist-led initiatives, studio groups, art fairs and exhibitions that provide an ever-growing platform for our artists. So if you’re out there, get busy.”
Blyth says the best advice she can give to budding artists she learnt from her father: “Aim your arrows high, and don’t undervalue yourself.”